So you think you can fight? Then meet Ryan Nerkowski

Josh Johnston

Mixed martial arts fighter Ryan Nerkowski said ,”If I’m not picking up my phone or in my room, (the rec center’s) where I’m at. You can always put money on it.” Nerkowski began karate lessons at 6 years old and has been involved in many different kinds of

Credit: DKS Editors

Ryan Nerkowski doesn’t mind getting punched in the face. Elbows to the face, however, are a different story. And shin kicks. Those feel like the swing of a major leaguer’s bat on the upper thigh.

But don’t just expect Ryan to take his licks. He’ll give them right back just as hard, if not harder. And when he whips his leg around and his shin connects with your leg, you’ll be the only one feeling pain. Ryan won’t. Not after the conditioning he’s been through.

With a 400-pound bag to hold his feet down and a couple of friends to hold the rest of his body, a trainer takes metal rods and plays a drum solo on Ryan’s shins, beating the nerve endings furiously. Next, the trainer takes a rolling pin up and down Ryan’s legs.

“I wanted to cry; I probably did cry,” he says. “I got home and my shins are like black and blue.

“The feeling comes back if you don’t keep up kicking and stuff like that. After doing it for a while, it’s like, oh whatever. It doesn’t even bruise usually, unless you go and, like, kick a wall – which I’ve done a couple times, you know.”

Is he crazy?

Just maybe.

Ryan dreams of becoming a professional mixed martial artist. The Kent State freshman might be an accounting major, but he would rather crunch bodies than numbers.

He doesn’t fight to blow off pent-up rage. In fact, Ryan barely has any at all. While some people get the impression that fighters are aggressive, Hulk-like creatures, Ryan is cooler than a protein-enriched smoothie.

He’s the laid back, “why not?” guy. The kind of guy who watches UFC when he’s 14 and thinks, “Well, why not me?”

He’s not like those guys who wear tight beaters to show off their muscles. Far from it – he wears hoodies all the time to hide them. He stands slightly taller than 6-foot and with his typical baggy sweatshirt on, few would even guess that Ryan is a fighter. He doesn’t feel the need to show off what he’s capable of.

And Ryan’s capable of a lot. He knows more moves than a Super Nintendo Street Fighter. Muay Thai, ju-jitsu, judo, boxing, karate and wresting, just to name a few. Ryan can sprint at an opponent and kick him in the head without missing a step. Chuck Norris, eat your heart out.

The guys wearing spandex shirts from Dick’s Sporting Goods? He could take them down in a heartbeat.

Sometimes, just messing around with his friends, reflex takes over. Once his friend Cory threw a friendly jab at Ryan’s face. Without thinking, Ryan blocked it and countered with a shot to Cory’s nose.

In high school, a girl came up behind Ryan and wrapped her arm over his shoulder. In an instant, he hip-tossed her and nearly had her in a ju-jitsu submission hold before he realized what he was doing.

“I felt so bad, but it’s just what you’re used to. It happens sometimes,” he says. “Usually they understand. It’s pretty cool after they get past the shock. They’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty gnarly.'”

Ryan trains constantly. College has pressed pause on him competing, so Ryan uses the time to hone his abilities.

If he wakes up early, he’ll lift 45-pound kettlebells in his dorm room. Between classes, he’ll sneak back to the rec to get his lifts in. Later at night, Ryan will get a cardio and conditioning workout in. If the weather’s nice, he’ll take a midnight jog – with those 45-pound kettlebells in each hand.

“If I’m not picking up my phone or in my room, (the rec center’s) where I’m at,” he says with a laugh. “You can always put money on it.”

And when he says he trains every day, he means it. To Ryan, Thirsty Thursdays just means fewer bodies in the weight room that night. He’d rather work out than go out.

Don’t call Ryan a saint just yet, though. He still has the trademarks of a college student. He’ll sleep through classes, play Halo for hours and – on rare occasions – hit up parties. Ryan doesn’t hide that he let himself go at College Fest, draining two bottles of Three Olives Grape Vodka with his brother and friends before hitting the parties. It’s not a habit he’s about to start. A night of drinking stunts muscle growth for three days, says Nick Neill, one of Ryan’s training partners.

“I was there with him (Saturday). I was his babysitter basically,” Nick says. “He talked about it on the way back to his room: ‘I hate it. I’m never doing this for another year.’ He’ll go a year without having any alcohol whatsoever. As a teenager, that’s pretty unheard of as far as I’m concerned.”

Drinking is fun, Ryan admits. He thinks kicking back with some friends and forgetting about his workouts is great. But it’s not who he is. And it’s not who he’s about to become.

“It’s almost like backtracking, and I never want to backtrack,” Ryan says. “I always want to move forward, into the horizon … with that song from ‘The Hulk’ playing as he’s walking away.”

Mondays are his chest days. Nine sets of eight to 12 repetitions each for bench press, incline bench press, dumbbell flys, weighted dips, pushdowns and skull crushers. Tuesdays are back and biceps. Wednesdays are devoted just to shoulders.

Thursdays are leg days, but with past injuries still lingering, those days are a bit tougher. So Ryan takes it easier with squats. Besides, too much muscle bulk will slow him down, and Ryan needs to be quick.

With a barbell weighing 475 pounds resting on his shoulders, Ryan raises himself onto his toes and back down. Not a problem. He thinks he can do more easily.

Ryan does full-body workouts Friday through Sunday. Come Monday, the routine starts all over again. And after his lifts, he might wind down by attacking the black boxing bag hanging next to the track at the rec center. Not one day off.

All of that builds up an appetite.

He uses the biggest meal plan available on campus, and it’s not even close to enough. Blame it on eight meals and 8,000 calories a day.

In the morning, just for starters, he’ll knock down a couple protein shakes. Then he’ll dig into eggs, French toast, pancakes, biscuits and gravy (his favorite) and wash it all down with orange juice. After his first class, he’ll stop by the dining hall again and get eight orders of scrambled eggs. And that’s just breakfast.

His lunch is a constant stream of canned lean meats, peanut butter sandwiches, vegetable juice concentrate (Ryan doesn’t bother with cups, he’ll drink straight from the can) and more protein shakes.

To top it all off, he’s got a gallon jug of egg whites – just like Rocky. Dinner’s pretty typical though, just multiplied a few times over.

Ryan’s parents originally got him into fighting. At around six-years-old, he took karate classes, even though he didn’t actually like them.

“Every day I’d be out playing with my friends in the summer time and stuff. My mom would be like, ‘You guys got to go to karate class now,'” Ryan says in a high-pitched, motherly voice. “‘Damn it.’ But that was way back then, so you know training wasn’t really a priority then.”

When he’d show up to grade school with cuts and bruises, his teachers took notice.

They’d pull him aside and ask questions about his home life, whether his parents beat him. The wise guy that he was, Ryan would answer, “No, I just fell down the stairs again.” Eventually, teachers would figure it out. “Oh, he’s just kind of crazy,” they would think.

Even now as he’s training, he’ll still get messed up. Sometimes so badly – eyes swelled shut, body in “horrible amounts of pain” – that he can’t drive home.

Today, as he stretches out before sparring, he runs his fingers along his lower legs.

“Dude, I’ve got one of them lumps right here,” he says to Nick.

“Is it scar tissue?” Nick asks.

“Actually I have ’em on both sides.” Ryan replies, sitting up from a hamstring-stretch position.

“Probably from kicking, too,” Nick says.

“Ah, my shins are all lumpy. Oh, God. I like to stretch,” Ryan says nonchalantly as he lies back down to stretch.

His left wrist is wrapped with a frayed, gray athletic bandage. Over winter break while lifting, Ryan’s wrist snapped.

During spring break, a doctor told him he’d need to see a specialist. “It goes numb periodically right here,” Ryan says, pointing to the outside of his wrist. “It’s got something to do with a nerve or some shit, he said. I might have to get surgery.”

He’s hyperextended his left knee. It pops and clicks from time to time. As does his right shoulder because of an armbar move that hyperextended it. Ligament tears in his right knee prevent him from heavy leg lifting. His left pectoral muscle tore and healed – just in time for his right pectoral to tear. Strained and pulled muscles, lower back problems, black eyes and some pain in his joints. But no broken bones. Despite what doctors may tell him, he won’t keep himself out for longer than a week or so.

So is Ryan Nerkowski crazy?

Actually, maybe not.

Because Ryan has a dream. A dream that pushed him to destroy the nerves in his legs. A dream fueled by the truckloads of food he eats a day. A dream motivating him to lift alone at an empty rec center on a Thursday night.

A dream of going pro.

“Just hopefully one day, you know, I’ll make it big and I won’t have to have a real job,” Ryan says. “That’s the goal when you think about it, you know. When you’re younger, you’re like, ‘Oh, I want to be a pro basketball player or baseball player or something.’ When you think about it, it’s just how much work you put into it, it’ll decide if you make it or not. So you train hard every day, do all the things you’re suppose to and, you know, you can make it there.”

Contact sports reporter Josh Johnston at [email protected].